Do university rankings matter or just confuse their true value?

This week we saw the release of yet another international ranking of universities. The result was pretty good: six Australian universities were placed in the world’s top 100. Another two were in the top 200 and 23 in the top 500 – more than half of the nation’s publicly funded institutions appeared in the list – five more than just five years ago. That’s not a bad result – especially given the current brouhaha over university funding – and suggests that Australia does have a healthy, functional higher education sector.

The question is, does it matter?

As with most things, the answer is both yes and no.

Consumers of universities’ stock in trade – their degrees – might reasonably assume that the higher the ranking the better that university is at teaching. But the fact is most global rankings use esoteric metrics based on research activity, such as journal publications and citations, to produce their final list. It’s got nothing to do with how good they are at teaching law, philosophy, speech pathology or quantum mechanics.

The most recent league table – the Academic Ranking of World Universities – comes out of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. The ARWU goes back to 2003 and was originally an attempt by the Chinese to work out what made a world-class university so that they might emulate it. It worked. China now has two universities – Tsinghua and Peking – in the top 100 and raft of others rapidly climbing their way up the ladder.

Since then many more rankings of various rigour and credibility have hit the ground and vie for our attention. Those with a commercial bent, such as the Times Higher Education and QS, attempt to also measure qualitative factors to give a more rounded appraisal of teaching, research and reputation, but which struggle with subjectivity, Anglo-centricity and forever changing methodologies.

They have also given birth to a never ending array of permutations – top 50 under 50, best according to discipline, employability, reputation, location – the list goes on.

While rankings struggle to measure what matters most to students – teaching quality – international students in particular rely on them to make important life decisions about where to study. Governments, rightly or wrongly, increasingly point to rankings to measure the success of their policies. And institutions use them to attract the best academic staff in a globalised recruitment market and to lever international research partnerships across the globe.

In other words, while university rankings all have problems with credibility, they are increasingly influential in ways that matter.

Critics, such as Ireland’s Ellen Hazelkorn, argue that rankings create perverse incentives for institutions which see them prioritise prestige over more worthwhile pursuits such as access and equity. She argues that the top 100 universities in any single ranking captures a mere 0.5 per cent of the 18,000 higher education institutions worldwide accounting for a mere 0.4 per cent of the 200 million tertiary students across the globe.

To see her point, take a look at Harvard. It has been ranked number one on the ARWU since its inaugural list in 2003. Harvard enrols just 22,000 students, has an endowment of US$48 billion and counts among its alumni eight US presidents and 130 Nobel Laureates. In other words, Harvard is rich, powerful and super-elite.

The same is true for Melbourne University, but on a far smaller scale. As Australia’s highest ranked of Australia’s 39 public universities, Melbourne has double the number of students as Harvard, (46,500); 0.5 per cent the endowment ($2bn); a mere eight Nobel Laureates and four prime ministers.

Melbourne might be a minnow relative to Harvard, but what does it’s ranking at 39 tell us about the experience of being a student at Melbourne. In fact, very little. Luckily, annual student experience surveys rate Melbourne, along with all other Australian universities, very well.

Maybe this is the point: that rankings tend to make invisible the worth and value of institutions slogging it out in regional and outer metropolitan campuses who are producing the next generation of teachers, nurses and engineers without whom the world would simply not turn.



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